European Soyuz Delivers Four O3b Broadband Satellites to Orbit

by

​PARIS — A Europeanized Russian Soyuz rocket on Dec. 18 successfully placed four O3b Networks high-throughput Ka-band broadband satellites into O3b’s unique 8,000-kilometer-altitude orbit, giving O3b a bigger margin for error as it manages its constellation, now comprising 12 satellites.

​Launch service provider Arianespace’s chief executive, Stephane Israel, said after the launch that all parameters looked good for the satellites but that it would take several hours to determine their exact status, including the precise orbital parameters. But the spacecraft are sending signals, he said.

​Since an August Soyuz launch of two European Galileo positioning, navigation and timing satellites — first celebrated as a success, then confirmed as a failure — Arianespace has adopted a policy of extreme caution before confirming a launch success.

​Operating from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, on South America’s northeast coast, the Soyuz rocket’s Fregat upper stage, which was implicated in the August launch anomaly of two European Galileo navigation satellites, completed three burns before deploying the four satellites, two at a time, at a 22-minute interval.

Dec. 18 Ariane 5 launch of four O3b satellites. Credit: Arianespace
Dec. 18 Ariane 5 launch of four O3b satellites. Credit: Arianespace

​O3b, which is based in Britain’s Channel Islands, needs six functional satellites to perform its commercial service. An onboard anomaly on the first four satellites, launched in June 2013, threatened to cause these satellites to stop functioning much earlier than their scheduled service lives.

​The second four satellites were launched in July 2014, permitting commercial service to begin. As a precaution, O3b elected to switch off two of the first four satellites to preserve their capacity in the event the other two failed.

​O3b has filed a $300 million insurance claim. The company’s lead investor and shareholder, satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg, has said it would favor permitting O3b to reinvest the insurance proceeds into expanding the business.

​The more satellites in orbit, the less work O3b customers’ mechanically steered antennas must do to maintain links from one satellite to another. O3b has enough radio spectrum at its unusual orbit to place more than 100 satellites in the orbit, a scenario in which ground antennas would need very little movement to remain a constant link with the spacecraft.

​O3b Chairman John Dick said the company would be ordering new, more-powerful satellites, but he did not provide details on the timing of the order, and how many satellites would be contracted.

​Each 700-kilogram O3b satellite, built by Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy, carries 12 steerable Ka-band antennas. O3b’s business plan started with telecommunications carriers in nations along the equator without terrestrial broadband, but more recently the company has expanded into oil and gas companies, maritime cruise lines, and military applications as future markets.